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ETHICAL ISSUES IN TECHNOLOGY

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Developments in technology usually do not in themselves raise ethical or moral issues. Instead it is the use to which these developments are put which raises basic questions, and from the perspective of history almost any use of a product of technological innovation can be made into a moral issue. A good illustration of this is the button which developed in the late medieval period. On the surface the button seems harmless enough, yet the Old Order Amish felt it was wrong to wear buttons because they were not mentioned in the Bible. Wearing or not wearing buttons became a moral issue for them.
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Humanism
Today
ETHICAL ISSUES IN TECHNOLOGY
Vern Bu/lough
Developments in technology usually do not in themselves raise ethical or moral
issues. Instead it is the use to which these developments are put which raises basic
questions, and from the perspective of history almost any use of a product of
technological innovation can be made into a moral issue. A good illustration of
this is the button which developed in the late medieval period. On the surface the
button seems harmless enough, yet the Old Order Amish felt it was wrong to
wear buttons because they were not mentioned in the Bible. Wearing or not
wearing buttons became a moral issue for them.
Fortunately few people adopted the attitudes ofthe Old Order Amish. Moreover
the Old Order Amish, like most of the rest of us, were inconsistent. The horse
drawn plow is not mentioned in the Bible, neither are buggies, nor iron pots for
cooking, iron stoves, or chimneys, neither glass windows nor any number of
other things developed after the Christian Bible was committed to writing. The
point of this illustration
is to emphasize that we, both as individuals and a
society, select the kind of technological issues on which we take a stand.
What kind of ethical issues should we be concerned with? One such issue is the
traditional one associated with technological change and which goes by the term
Luddism. The term originated from a series of disturbances
in Yorkshire in
England in 1812 when croppers (shearmen) endeavored to stem the rapid rise
and installation of the cloth dressing machinery. Though the Luddites ultimately
were unsuccessful in preventing technological innovation, and the name often
seems to imply a kind of blind unreasoning opposition to technological change,
it is often forgotten that they had good reasons for their hostility. Though we
regard the devices about which they were protesting as ultimately helpful, we
forget that a single spinning Jenny displaced some nine or ten warp spinners and
thirteen or fourteen abb (weft) spinners while a scribbling engine displaced
fifteen or sixteen scribblers. One man using a gig mill could do what a dozen
shearmen had done before, while the shearing frame made an additional three or
four shearmen redundant. Scribblers and shearmen each accounted for around
IS percent of the pre-industrial
adult male work force in England, and so the
result was a massive displacement as the men involved in such situations found
, their skills useless and their labor superfIous when new machinery was
introduced.
This, to my mind, raises a moral issue which no humanist can
ignore, although it is not the introduction
of the technological developments
which raise the moral issue, but the lack of concern over what happens to the
people involved. Technological development tends to imply change, and often
this ultimately is for the better, but we need to be concerned about what happens
to the individual during such a period of change.
The Luddite
problem
is a continuing
one, and is very much part of the American
scene today as computers,
robotics,
and other developments,
are forcing
rapid
19

Humanism
Today
technological
change in traditional
American industries from printing to the
manufacture
of steel, from
mining to agriculture,
from retailing
to the
professions.
Humanists
need to put forth both sides of the dispute,
and
emphasize the necessity of reeducation and compensation
for those displaced.
Sometimes technological change will probably be slower than we want it to be.
Our moral concern is with the victims of technological change. Some uses of
technological
innovation
have the possibility of having many more innocent
victims than others. A good example has been the use of nuclear technology. It
has great potential for helpful uses and also for tremendous harm. The moral
issue is clear, at least in my mind. We oppose those developments which have the
potential for killing vast numbers of people, and try to make certain that the so
called "peaceful"
uses of atomic power have enough safeguards to prevent
contamination
of the environment
and the people in the area.
Another
two-edged-sword
is the euphemistically
called biotechnology.
A
number of moral issues are raised by this about which humanists probably see no
moral issue. A good example of this is in vitro fertilization.
Though some
religious groups have opposed this as contrary to the teachings of their religion,
for humanists the issue does not pose a dilemna. Women unable to have children
and willing to undergo in vitro fertilization through their own choice in order to
do so, should be able to do so.
Similar to the nuclear issue, however, is the problem of gene splicing. The danger
here is that bacteria in the process of being altered to meet some expected or
anticipated
problem might develop more harmful effects. Since the potential of
great profits is involved, it is essential that humanists
be alert to the moral
implications
of various decisions. At this writing, two different government
groups are directly involved in most of the biotechnology
problems; The U. S.
Department of Agriculture sets the ground rules for biotechnology of plants and
the Environmental
Protection Agency for other forms of life. When humans are
directly involved, there are also other agencies such as various Human Use
Committees. Still humanists have to be on the alert since the potential for great
profits leads some groups to cut corners.
For example the Environmental
Protection
Agency has twice moved against Advanced Genetic Sciences in
Oakland,
California,
for violation of policies and for falsifying data. So far,
there are major restrictions on experiments in order to try to confine them to
labs.
As the techniques improve, however, other issues will quickly be raised. If we can
eliminate diabetes by modifying genetic makeup in utero should we do it? We
now do testing for some of the traditional
hereditary diseases and negative
results often lead to induced abortions.
It is now possible, however, to make
modifications in the genetic structure. Should we do this instead of aborting? I
see no reason why not to intervene if we can in such cases but this is where there
might be considerable disagreement.
I think it is much too early to make hard
and fast rules of what to do.
The problem is that new innovations in any field often have sequellae which we
cannot always foresee. We should err always on the side of caution. Even when
we know the long term effects of technological
innovation
are probably
beneficial, we have to always consider both the human and environmental
40

Humanism
Today
factors. Though humanists are strong advocates of an open marketplace for
ideas and innovations,
we also strongly believe in upholding
the rights of
individuals.
We insist that both man and the environment
be given serious
account in putting any technological breakthrough
into the market arena and
that those which pose serious physical dangers be carefully controlled
and
regulated. We also believe that there are a number of moral and ethical dilemnas
out there for all of us and humanists have to be alert to focusing attention on
them. We have done so in the past and will continue to do so.
41

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